Every year, millions of tourists flock to Florida to enjoy world-class theme parks and miles of white sand beaches. But there is more to the Sunshine State than seashells and roller coasters. Here are four destinations worth a second look.
Nestled in the upper eastern corner of the state you will find St. Augustine, the country’s oldest continuously occupied city. Dating back to 1565, this quaint tourist destination is packed with history as well as modern-day activities for visitors of all ages. Take an immersive journey through three centuries of St. Augustine history at Colonial Corner, explore the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States at Castillo de San Marcos (complete with working canons) and learn fascinating stories about individual inmates that once occupied the cells of The Old Jail. Old Town Trolley Tours is your one-stop shop for visiting these destinations and many more. (Note: The brave at heart will want to add on a Ghosts & Graveyards tour.) The city is also home to the Fountain of Youth. (Yes, you can actually drink from the fountain. We’ll let you decide if it works.) All of this is just steps away from one of the most pristine stretches of beach in the state. For more on this magical city, visit www.visitstaugustine.com.
The Space Coast
Just 45 minutes east of Orlando, Florida’s Space Coast encompasses 72 miles of action-packed coastline. Get up close and personal with the Shuttle Atlantis, tour launch areas and walk amongst giant rockets at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. (Note: If you time things right, you may even witness a rocket launch. Visit http://spacecoastlaunches.com/blog/launch-list/ to view scheduled launches.) Adjacent to the space center complex, explore Florida’s diverse wildlife at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Just down the road in Cocoa Beach, check out Ron Jon Surf Shop (the largest of its kind at a whopping 52,000 square feet), charter a private offshore fishing boat for a day of angling fun and round out your evening with shopping and dining at the Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier. A bit further south in Melbourne, visit Brevard Zoo where you can view more than 650 animals by foot, paddle boat, kayak and zipline! Find more on the Space Coast at www.visitspacecoast.com.
The Nature Coast
On the opposite side of the state is a swath of land known as the Nature Coast that stretches from the base of the Panhandle to the northern suburbs of Tampa Bay. Here visitors are encouraged to experience the “real Florida.” Opportunities for camping, hiking, fishing and wildlife viewing abound. Float on a tube down the crystal clear, spring-fed waters of the Rainbow River, which are a refreshing 72º year-round. Stroll along paved trails and boardwalks at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, a rehabilitation center for injured and orphaned animals that offers a unique opportunity to witness Florida’s wildlife at close range, including manatees, black bear, Florida panther, alligators and a variety of majestic birds. For a close encounter of a different kind, head to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to watch the famed mermaids in their underwater show, then spend the day splashing away at Buccaneer Bay, the local spring-fed water park. For more on the Nature Coast, visit www.naturecoastcoalition.com.
Everglades National Park
Covering 2,400 square miles, Everglades National Park is a nature lover’s dream. To truly experience the Everglades, you have to get out of your car and into the landscape. Explore on your own by foot or bike on designated trails or by canoe/kayak along the waterways. Or opt for a guided tour (our recommendation for first-timers). Shark Valley Tram Tours is an authorized concessioner for the National Park Service that offers two-hour educational tram tours through the Everglades that are packed with wildlife sightings. Another fun way to get into the heart of this diverse ecosystem is by airboat. Choose from three authorized operators that offer professional airboat tours inside the park. Find more information on these, and other guided tour options at www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/guidedtours.htm. (Note: There are two seasons in the Everglades: wet and dry. Dry season runs from November through March and is the ideal time to visit to avoid extreme heat, torrential rains and pesky bugs.)
The next time you plan a trip to sunny Florida, keep these lesser-known destinations in mind. You might just discover a whole new side of the state to fall in love with.